Before I start, I have a confession to make: I used to hate notebooks. I’ve always loved writing, so I heard the advice to keep a journal or a notebook about a million times. I’d buy a pretty journal, and, after a few days, or, at the most, weeks, abandon it on my shelf. I couldn’t tell why—whether I was too lazy, or real life was too boring, or if I just didn’t know anything worth writing down. By the time I signed up for a writing class at my home school co-op, I’d sworn off journals.
At the first class, our teacher handed us each a composition notebook. As part of our homework, we had to write one entry—a page and a half or longer—every day. If we’d filled enough pages by the end of the week, our journal was stamped.
I started journaling again with all the enthusiasm you’d have for a typical homework assignment. My first entries were mostly lists—favorite books and movies, things I loved and things I hated. After a while I began to write about whatever had been going on that day, and record my thoughts on my writing process. I was halfway through my first notebook before I realized how much I’d started to love it.
Today, I keep two different kinds of notebooks: a journal and a notebook for everything else. Here’s my current journal:
I usually split my entries in half—one half is a writing log, where I record my daily progress and whine about how hard it all is. The other half is more of a typical journal entry, with anything interesting I did that day written down, plus any thoughts I want to remember. I’ve just started keeping a reading list at the back of my journal. It keeps track of what I’ve read, and each title works like a mini-journal entry—I remember thoughts and feelings I had while reading each book. I write in pen, so my journals are pretty messy!
I use a plain spiral-bound notebook for everything else; lists, homework assignments, and freewrites. Every day, before I write anything else, I sit down and write a page on whatever pops into my head first. There’s no editing, and rarely much punctuation or good grammar.
The photo below is of a freewrite from a couple weeks ago. As near as I can remember, it was inspired by a paper model of Paris. The first sentence is ‘The paper city came in a paper box.’ Not exactly a killer hook, but from there it morphed into a description of the girl who makes the paper cities. All day, she sits in her shop, surrounded by paper buildings, animals, and people. She never talks. So far, this description has stayed in my notebook, but who knows? One day it might become the beginning of a story. Freewriting helps keep my writing muscles limber, and it can be inspiring, so I encourage you to try it if you haven’t already. At the very least, it keeps me writing.
Though my two notebooks are very different, I keep both of them for the same purpose--to collect things I don’t want to forget. Often, though, an idea strikes when I don’t have time to record it in my journal. For those times, I use index cards. I keep a pile of them on my desk, and more in my purse and backpack. I store used index cards in a shoebox.
Anything that inspires me goes on an index card. The two cards in this photo have quotes written on them. The first is from Norton Juster: “I found out that nothing is easy—or should be.” I have to remember this constantly! The next quote, “To be one’s self is a rare thing and a great one.” is from The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin. These quotes might inspire a story or the solution to a problem in a story later. For now I can rest easy knowing they’re both stored where I can find them.
Looking back, I know the main reason I wasn’t successful at journaling was because I didn’t want a real journal. I wanted a picture perfect notebook full of beautiful writing. I didn’t want to be myself (you can’t ne yourself if you want to be perfect) and I didn’t want to collect all my messy, imperfect memories. Now I have notebooks full of them—and I couldn’t be happier.
Alex McCarron is a 17-year-old student living in West Virginia. She’s always on the lookout for a good story, and hopes to write her own someday.
In honor of Alex's journals, index cards, and generosity here, I will give away a copy of CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINT by Orson Scott Card. This book has offered Alex a "crash-course in character development", and it will go to noe commenter on this post. Please leave your comment by Sunday, April 20 to have your name entered into the drawing.